As the parent of a child with developmental delays, I often get anxiety over every missed milestone. It started early: When will my daughter roll over? When will she sit up? And it continues today. I go down the rabbit hole of Google searches and lose sleep over each missed milestone, searching for solutions and comfort. When she didn’t engage in imaginative play by the age of 2, my response was no different.
I saw that my fellow moms of young toddlers were hiding holiday presents so their little ones wouldn’t find them. Mine were sitting on the floor in the hallway, unwrapped, and my 2 year old would pass by them without a second glance. Birthday presents from her first year were still sealed in boxes because she had no interest in toys.
Her therapists urged me to play with her and help develop her imagination. I did. And guys, I am not that great at this stuff, but I cooked pretend food like it was my job, and I called on my childhood ventriloquism skills to give voices to all the dolls and stuffed animals my daughter had. Despite my impressive ventriloquism skills, she never engaged and seemed unimpressed by my efforts, but I persisted. One day, she picked up the toy phone out of her kitchen set and held it to her ear. I am not sure if anyone has ever been praised so enthusiastically for holding a toy phone to their ear, but my daughter got the equivalent of a standing ovation at the Oscars.
By the age of three, typical children will be fully engaged in imaginative play and creating in-depth stories for their toys. They play more independently and even mix toy sets together, for example, Spider-man may come over for tea with Anna and Kristoff. At three, my daughter was doing some imitation and would copy the scenes I had created, but she was more interested in lining up the toys and reciting their names, rather than actually playing with them.
My daughter’s lack of imaginative play became more apparent at school, and I was genuinely worried. She knows who the Paw Patrol characters are because of her peers, but we have never watched a single episode. That’s right – I have a 3.5 year old and we have never watched a single episode of Paw Patrol! No need to be jealous though, because what we do watch is the same episodes of Barney, over and over and over and over and…well, you get the point.
The best part about working so hard with your child to reach milestones is that when they do reach them, it’s an incredible victory. It was only three months ago I took my daughter on a playdate to the Playmobil Funpark where she mostly marched around singing to a piece of plastic fence from the farm table. When we returned to the Playmobil Funpark this weekend, she was engaging in imaginative play with the toys around us. In April, she was singing and dancing and trying to put herself in places she shouldn’t have been. This weekend, she was actively creating scenes with the toys and pretend people. Her imagination was on full display and although it may have arrived late, it was beautiful to witness. The Playmobil place is a place I can’t imagine you’d see many moms tearing up in (unless they’re at the cash register), but if you do see a mom tearing up there, maybe this is why.
Check out some of our magical moments here:
Some tips to help develop your child’s imagination:
- Find toys that replicate the real thing. My daughter started pretending to cook with her Melissa & Doug silverware and utensils. I found an old flip-phone (I am aging myself here) laying around, and my daughter loves to play with it; the same goes for old wallets and bags.
- Use toys your child shows an interest in. My daughter loved Matchbox cars, so we started with simple races. Now she creates voices for the cars and they do more than just race across the kitchen tile.
- Keep it simple. Start with just pretending to pour pretend water or eat pretend cookies. If your child likes to push buttons and make things work, employ toys that do just that. Slowly introduce items that may not be realistic like a unicorn eating a pretend cupcake.
- Play. Play. Play. Get on the floor and play with your child, even if they don’t seem to show any interest. Keep playing. Stay imaginative and always encourage them. When you thought your child was going to pretend to eat the plastic pizza, but instead uses it as a steering wheel and starts singing “The Wheels on the Bus”, get on the bus and go for that ride with them.
Now serving fresh imaginations!